And how can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind? — Carson McCullers, from “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”
I moved to Memphis the summer after my first year of college and enrolled at the University of Memphis. I lived in the year-round dorm on campus and immediately enrolled in summer school. You can’t get more southern than Memphis.
I remember pouring over the roster of classes offered in the English department. There were so many choices! That summer I enrolled in Literary Heritage and Intro to Creative Writing. I don’t really remember anything about either of those classes, not even the teachers. Just the excitement of being away from home and free from the clutches of a small town probably had something to do with that.
But I do remember the realization that like anything else, if you want to be good at writing then you have to practice. I had no backlist of short stories or essays to choose from to share in my Creative Writing class. Those stories in my grade school journals were a scrapbook memory now. I was happy and eager to sit down at the word processor and create something for the next class, which the class usually tore apart, but I didn’t care. I was in a room full of creative minds. I was sharing my work with fellow writers, and to this day that’s still the best feeling in the world.
I continued my high by enrolling in Forms of Poetry and Fiction Workshop that fall semester. I guess I was more settled by then because I do remember both of those teachers and the classes very well. I still remember some of the work that was shared by other students. The Fiction Workshop professor even referenced Flannery O’Connor a few times. I remember my eyes lighting up because I knew who he was talking about. But there was a third class I took that fall that was about to change everything: Southern Literature.
On the first day of class, the professor sat behind the desk and began rattling on about what made literature southern: location, dialect, theme, characters. He referenced several different authors and their books, none of which I’d ever read before except for Tennessee Williams. Before the end of class, he assigned us the first five chapters of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. A student asked if he was going to give out a paper syllabus and the professor proclaimed he’d just given it to us verbally. Lucky for me, I’d written down every book he mentioned.
I rushed to the campus bookstore and picked up every one. I paid with another pint of blood and the soul of my second child. Thankfully there were no books required for the other two classes I was taking. Back at the dorm, I sat down on my bed with all the required books spread out in front of me. I picked each one of them up and examined the cover and read the back copy, ogling over them like a boy with new baseball cards. These were my mentors-to-be.
A few weeks into the class the professor asked if we knew what a ménage à trois was. No one answered. A few students hesitantly giggled. The professor announced that we were about to read about a strange one. It was a novella called Ballad of the Sad Café and it was written by Carson McCullers. Because of the name (and MTV), I’d assumed Carson was a man until I read the biography in the front of the little copy of the novella I’d bought from the bookstore.
I finished reading it that night in one sitting. Ballad of the Sad Café is about isolation and loneliness. It tells the story of a lonesome woman named Miss Amelia. Living in a small Georgia town, Miss Amelia is viewed by the townsfolk as being very cautious and stern. To their surprise, she takes in a traveler who arrives in town and claims to be kin to her, a dwarf named Cousin Lymon. Rumors circulate about the odd couple until Cousin Lymon begins to entertain the townsfolk in Miss Amelia’s home while she serves drinks and snacks. And so the café is born.
Through gossip, we learn of Miss Amelia’s untimely marriage that only lasted ten days. We see why Miss Amelia was so distant and cold before Cousin Lymon arrived. Suddenly, both the reader and the townsfolk are happy that she’s found a friend in Cousin Lymon, someone who has been able to bring a smile to her face and lift her spirits. And then everyone is shaken by a surprise climax involving Miss Amelia’s ex-husband and the dwarf!
It was so shocking and memorable to me, I found myself suggesting this book to friends again and again years later. I must have given away and re-bought at least half a dozen copies and it’s one of the few books on my shelf I’ve read more than once.
The professor focused on the themes of sexuality, gender, love, and loneliness as we discussed the strange novella in class, all traits of Southern literature that had popped up already in the previous books we’d read. Personally, I wanted to know more about the author and how she’d come to write this. I wanted to write like this too.
Carson was born in Columbus, Georgia. She was destined to be a musician, studying piano at Juilliard in New York City in the early 1930’s at the age of 17. I had briefly considered music when I took up the clarinet in junior high. I played all four years in high school. My parents encouraged my talent by buying a piano for me because several of my friends could play. Their piano music plays in the background in our home in several of my childhood memories. I could pick out a melody on the keys, but I abandoned music and lay down my clarinet right after high school. That silent piano still sits where it always has, a cream-colored ghost of my past in my mother’s great room waiting for me to write about it one day.
Carson returned to Georgia, changing her mind about music, to study creative writing in night classes at Columbia University. In 1936 her first story “Wunderkind,” an autobiographical piece about an insecure musician’s failure, was published in Story magazine.
Carson would go on to write eight books: four novels, a short story anthology, a collection of poems, a play, and her autobiography which she dictated aloud during her final months. She suffered numerous illnesses, a failed marriage, and battled alcoholism. She had several strokes, which started at an early age, and one side of her body was completely paralyzed by the time she was thirty-one.
In class, we checked her off on the syllabus and moved on to a play by Tennessee Williams’ called A Streetcar Named Desire. I was equally excited to read Mr. Williams again, but the grasp Carson’s novella had on me would not let go. I needed to read more of her right away. I chose her 1940 novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
It is the haunting story of John Singer, a deaf mute, who befriends four different people in a small Georgia town. His new friends enjoy sitting with him and telling them of their struggles. They consider him a good listener, despite not being able to hear them or really communicate with them at all. Singer has one friend, another deaf mute who lives with him, who he can communicate with and as the first sentence in the book states, they are always together. When his friend has to go away to a mental hospital, Singer finds himself ultimately alone despite the townspeople who frequently call on him. It is the ultimate story of one’s struggle with isolation and loneliness, enriched by the deep South of the 1930s.
Despite my own inner conflict with speech, I was quite the talker in school. Yet, I still had problems making close friends. Outside of common relationships with classmates back then and with coworkers now, I still have that problem today. When I was in college, my close friends that I spent time with on a regular basis were either coworkers or ex-boyfriends.
I had no qualms about going to the mall by myself. One of my favorite things to do on my day off was to go to the movies. These were activities many people I knew frowned upon when it came to the notion of having to do it alone. These days I’ll even go to a restaurant by myself. I am my own best company. And for what clichés are worth, I can be in a room full of people and still feel ultimately alone.
John Singer has been one of the most profound characters that I have spent more time thinking about probably than anyone else in literature. When I discuss the book with anyone else, I love to describe him as being “emotionally handicapped.” McCullers never lets you forget about his physical handicap either; the dialogue in the book is one-sided and Singer only communicates with looks of “understanding.”
I can only imagine the personal pain of the author from which Singer was born. It reminded me of Flannery again, as it seemed pain — both physical and emotional — was becoming a reoccurring theme in the lives of my favorite authors. And yet, some of their best work was born from it.
It was at this point in my life that I knew I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to attempt to capture all of those traditional Southern sentiments in it: loneliness, heartbreak, isolation, race, sex, emotional and physical handicapped characters. I wanted to pay homage to the Southern greats. But would I have to leave the South to do that? All of Carson’s best work was written after she’d left. Perhaps her heart was lonely for home.
I passed Southern Lit with a B that semester, but got an A in my Fiction Workshop. The following semesters would be spent on having to appease all the British Literature requirements my degree demanded of me, but on the last day of the Southern Lit class an older female student asked the professor why he didn’t include other Southern greats in his curriculum, like Faulkner (I knew who that was!) or Capote. The teacher gave a sly reply, something along the lines of him being the teacher and it was his class and he got to pick what we read and that’s why.
I ran into that female student again the following summer in another writing workshop we were both taking. She was an older lady, kind of Bohemian-looking, with a Northern accent. She was getting her Masters in Psych but taking Lit and Writing courses for fun. For sake of sparking a conversation with her, I reminded her of the comment she’d made on the last day of Southern Literature, and I told her I’d agreed with her.
My real reason behind asking her was because I wanted to know more about that second author she’d mentioned whose name I could not remember. If I could just get her to repeat the name, I could look into him and find out more. I’d lied and told her how much I had loved reading Faulkner in English Comp 101.
“You’ll love Capote too if you like Southern writers. I can’t believe we didn’t read any of him in class,” she said.
Capote! That was it. But I couldn’t even spell Capote.